David Orentlicher, a law professor (Indiana), poses the following hypothetical over at The Faculty Lounge with respect to President Obama’s recent statement that business owners do not achieve their successes on their own.  I am far less interested in the President’s original statement, its context, and so on, than in the religious analogy offered by Professor Orentlicher (this is CLR Forum, after all):

[C]onsider how the critics would respond to a somewhat different phrasing that probably has been expressed by other elected officials and perhaps Obama as well.

Suppose a candidate said that entrepreneurs don’t achieve their successes on their own but benefit from the good grace of God. Would business owners be offended by the suggestion that their achievements are the result of more than their own inventiveness, resourcefulness and hard work? I’ve always appreciated the fact that a Sabbath day of rest reminds us that the world goes on even when we are not working, that we are not responsible for all the good that comes to us.

To be sure, there are two parts to the critique of Obama. On one hand, it is said, he doesn’t give sufficient credit to creators of companies. On the other hand, he gives too much credit to government. My alternative phrasing gives credit to God rather than government, and many business owners may feel that they get more help from God than they do from government. Indeed, they may see government as more of a hindrance than a helper. But it’s worth remembering that God can put us through tribulations too, as America’s farmers are finding this year.

I find the hypothetical fascinating not so much on the substance, but for what it says about the world view that would see an equivalence between the two scenarios.  Many people might not see an equivalence between giving credit for their successes to God, on the one hand, and to the government, on the other, because they believe that God is God, while the government is not God.  To believe this, one need not be inherently suspicious of government, or believe that government is a force for evil, or any such nonsense.  One might merely think that, notwithstanding one’s own disagreements with it, the government is as a general matter composed of well-meaning people who try to do their best by their lights but who, like the rest of us (and unlike God), can and often do get things wrong.    But to believe that the cases are equivalent, or even analogous, one needs to have a very high opinion of the government and its powers indeed.

Back to CLR Forum.

15 thoughts on “Giving Credit Where it is Due

  1. Our historical records clearly show that our founders often gave thanks to God for the blessings they had received.

    If your gratitude goes to government, it is misplaced. It should go to your fellow citizens, government is merely the vehicle through which flows the contribution to your success.

    Do you display gratitude to the box which brings you your annual Christmas fruitcake, or to the person who sent it?

  2. I suspect the ubiquitous argument that all of the founders were not believers comes from the same vision – permeating academia. Of course, few were Calvinists, but even the least believing did acknowledge a “providential creator” and were steeped in Biblical allusions. Perhaps it is implicit, but one misunderstanding is likely to lead to the other.

  3. What Obama is dealing with here is the notion that our rights come from God, not from government. That is the foundation of everything else in American law. He is laying the foundation, the mindset, if you will, that government grants dispensation, that it is a stand alone organism with it’s own interests, rights and privileges, apart from the citizenry, and that it can withdraw said rights at any time.

    The gratitude we are to feel to government for roads and bridges logically leads to the next conclusion, that government tolerates us, and can give or take those privileges at it’s will, and that God-given rights that dignify the individual and his pursuits, and are beyond the control of government, simply don’t exist.

  4. “one need not be inherently suspicious of government, or believe that government is a force for evil, or any such nonsense”
    It’s nonsense to be inherently suspicious of government? Is that why Thomas Paine called government a necessary evil?

  5. Government is a service provider, which provides certain services that are universally recognized as a legitimate function of government (military, courts), as well as many others that some think should be private (schools, bus systems, etc.). They provide these services monopolistically, and they bill you for them coercively – setting a non-negotiable price and threatening jail if you don’t pay it.

    For providing these services, governments are paid – and paid very well, usually paid better than a private sector service company would be paid. They also frequently provide inferior service because their monopolistic and unionized structures are less efficient than the private sector.

    One has NO obligation to be “thankful” for a service provider that you pay at gunpoint for mediocre, overpriced services. Indeed, government workers should genuflect to the investors, business owners, business managers, and entrepreneurs who generate the wealth-creating economic exchanges that funds our historically unprecedented level of government and it’s over-paid, over-secure jobs.

  6. Preacher: What a beautiful and productive farm! When it comes time to tithe, don’t forget God created this bounty with His blessings of sun and rain.

    Farmer: God had this land a heckuva lot longer than I did, Preacher. Until I took over, it was all briars and thistles.

  7. Intresting concept, so next question: If I choose to be an atheist, do I still have to pay taxes?

  8. Reagans last public speech was at a ceremony honoring him and including many Brits, thatcher among them. The core of every speech was that the US and UK saw power going from God to people to government, whereas the continent saw it going from God to government to people.
    As Europe secularized, governments are all too happy to displace God and every publican to pretend to be pope.

  9. Most traditions view God as the Supreme Being, prime mover, creator, and ultimate law-giver. God’s involvement in the follies of man varies by tradition, but folks who pray do so not just to honor and thank their deity, but to ask for grace (blessings in general) and divine intercession in particular matters in the belief that the Lord will look out for those who do so.

    Government operates through people: elected officeholders, bureaucrats, and the like. Each of our interactions with government is driven by the state — mood, intelligence, attitude, decency, integrity, physical condition, financial stability, and so forth — of these agents at the instant of interaction. Their ability to perform their jobs can vary considerably. The advice, assistance, and service one gets from government are quite unlike God’s blessings.

    I find it ironic that a prof from Indiana poses a hypothetical based on a speech by a politician from Chicago, my old home town. Does he not occasionally visit the Windy City, does he not know how it works? County and municipal governments are spawns of Satan!

    My mom’s cousin worked in City Hall and would fix tickets for friends and family-members cited for moving or parking violations. Restaurant-owners may tell you which city inspectors charge the most. Ask the larger car dealers how many vehicles in their lease fleet are driven by politicians’ spouses and kids or how much they have to pay to ensure that customers’ cars are not ticketed.

    Government’s practitioners understand and use power wisely or poorly. They can damage and kill a business in a variety of ways. God does not.

  10. Ginny: I tend to think that people in academia believe that all of the founders were non-believers because they simply don’t understand the religious situation of that historical period, or even religious behavior in general. I can easily see how a cynical liberal-arts grad student or professor–who doesn’t have much contact with people outside their little world–can look at someone like Thomas Paine and conclude that he was an athiest. Classes and research in subjects like gender studies or ethnic grievance take the place of actual history or Western philosophy, and create people who are ignorant of their own civilization.

  11. God only wants 10%, and all He did was create and sustain everything. Give me a call when government creates new laws of physics.

  12. Along the lines of this post, it never fails to amaze me that many liberals who would *never* admit to a faith in *GOD*, have no problem professing a daily faith in the accuracy of a government supplied *GDP* figure.

    Both require a faith in the evidence of things unseen, but only the latter provides an excuse for routing more taxpayer wealth to the members of the political class (as in “we only spend x% of claimed GDP on my favored program” or “we are operating x% below “possible” GDP because government isn’t spending enough to raise aggregate demand.”

    Apparently it is more lucrative to be a Keynesian than a Deist.

  13. This article is about giving thanks, and to whom or Whom. A corollary is to whom to ask for help. The reason the churches are empty in the European welfare states is because people turn to government for all help and never their Creator. Prior to the welfare state, the reverse was the case. It’s not a very noble view of how most people view religion and belief in God, but “what’s in it for me” is apparently a large element of the thinking.

  14. It is no surprise at all that a leftist would be comparing gov to God, since to them gov is god, the bounty from whom all belssing flow, and the one we owe our worship to.

Leave a Reply